Everyone Hates Email — Because It Works

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Computer Cafes In New York City
Photo: Jonathan Elderfield/Liaison

News broke over the weekend that Ray Tomlinson, widely credited as the inventor of email, had passed away at the age of 74. Tomlinson was the prime mover in the creation of a communication system that is still central to billions of peoples’ lives, and has been — correctly — praised as a genius.

Which is a bit odd given how his invention has generally been talked about.

If you were to take stock of how people felt about email last Friday, you’d have thought Tomlinson was an Alfred Nobel or a Robert Oppenheimer. “Email sucks,” the tune tends to go. “Email is the worst. Email is bad for your mental health and your business’s well-being. Email is a font of unceasing anxiety; a yoke to which, so long as computers exist, we will be fastened.”

I know this complaint well because it’s now 22 years old. (It may be older than that; it’s just much harder to search the private complaints of the military and academic users of early email.) In 1994, just a few years into the accelerating adoption of the World Wide Web, the New York Times was already describing anxiety over email’s omnipresence:

I recently read about a large Japanese company that has instituted a ‘no communications’ hour between 9 A.M. and 10 A.M.,” said Juliet Schor, a senior lecturer on economics at Harvard University, who specializes in women in the workplace. “That means no phone calls, no faxes, even from the president of the company. And they are finding that this is the most productive time of the day for employees.”

That piece appeared in the “Style” section. Four days later, in “Home & Garden,” the Times ran this account from a technology researcher:

Sometimes one can get too much of a good thing. Gary Chapman, 41, who has a grant to do research on technological policy in the 21st century, estimated that he sometimes received 50 to 80 E-mail messages a day when he started using a free computer account about three years ago at Harvard College in Cambridge, Mass. “When I was getting tons of E-mail, I would let my E-mail drive my agenda for the day,” he said.

Mr. Chapman said he stopped using E-mail altogether for a while and felt that he had more control over his day. Now, he has resumed using it “but the volume is far, far less, with reason,” he said.

The complaints didn’t dissipate as email became more familiar. As Carol Hymowitz recalled in The Wall Street Journal in 1999:

Unquestionably, e-mail is speedy and commands attention. Discussions that once took 20 minutes just to arrange now can be completed in a few seconds. But the ease and speed at which information can be transmitted seems to encourage a glut of exchanges. One person on my staff not only keeps me informed of her every movement with dozens of e-mails daily but also forwards me copies of most messages she sends to others.

(Due respect, but that’s not email’s fault; that employee just sucks.)

By 2004, PC Magazine was already calling for the death of email, which had turned into a cumbersome nuisance:

First of all, too many people have not fully subscribed to e-mail. E-mail is a system that requires dedication from all users. You cannot take a month off and discard all your messages from that month. Years ago, before the spam problem, people could go on vacation and come back and clear out their in-boxes. But if you go away for seven days today and let your in-box languish, you can have up to 5,000 messages to clear. Mail gets lost in this process. Besides getting less mail myself, I’m noticing more and more messages disappearing into the ether, never to be answered.

(Earlier that year, Bill Gates had told audience at the World Economic Forum that “two years from now, spam will be solved.” He also promised that Microsoft was working on a search engine to trounce Google.)

At this point, “email is bad” had become a reliable subject for the business, lifestyle, and technology press. In 2007, Businessweek reported:

According to Madbury (N.H.)-based NFI Research, two-thirds of 228 senior executives and managers who responded to a recent survey say e-mail is the most prominent workplace disruption, followed by crisis of the day (42%), personal interruptions (31%), and changing priorities (30%).

A 2012 study concluded that “people who check their work email regularly exhibit higher states of stress, and less focus, than workers who continue to do their jobs while being cut off from email entirely.”

As email has faced competition from platforms both private — Slack and Whatsapp and Facebook — and public — the text message — the complaining hasn’t stopped. An Atlantic article from January of this year called ”The Triumph of Email” is sub-headlined “Why does one of the world’s most reviled technologies keep winning?” Just a few weeks ago, a Harvard Business Review article presented “A Modest Proposal: Eliminate Email.”

The thing is, it’s been two decades and we still haven’t. So it must be doing something well.

In fact, we complain about email so much because it works so well. Email is good at one extremely important thing: sending digital beep-boops to someone quickly. It’s good, in fact, because that’s all it does. (Slack, the most recent product to be presented as an email-killer, replaces emails with chat rooms, DMs, and a sleek mobile app — but wasn’t the idea of being constantly accessible the whole problem with email in the first place, back in 1994?)

We’ve come to expect our software to have new features and iterations and version numbers, but email remains for the most part static and unchanged. Every once in a while, a software developer will build a new app or extension meant to "solve" email. They rarely take, because email’s strength lies in its simplicity. It’s an open standard and a universal tool, not a company pledging to help you accomplish specific tasks or meet specific goals.

In fact, email’s simple strength is exactly why people mistake it for the real problems they face: It adapts to systems (and neuroses) so smoothly and transparently that it seems to create them, rather than enable them.

In business, the problems of overburdened managers and overworked employees are problems of bureaucracy and capitalism and bad managerial structure — not email. There’s a Harvard Business Review article called “Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?” that would seem to diagnose the problems with email by writing about “monkeys” — problems that workers hand off to one another, endlessly deferring decisions and creating pileups in manager’s to-do lists (or creating to-do lists entirely). It might sound like your inbox problem, except the article was published in 1974. If email has made decision-making processes worse, it’s because email is very efficient, and those processes were fundamentally flawed in the first place.

In real, non-office life, too, email is seen as bad, but people generally worry about email because they overthink it. Email is a hell we’ve created for ourselves, through our neuroses and our insecurities. In many ways, it’s like a phone service — useful for an infinite number of situations. It’s not the phone’s fault that your aunt keeps calling, it’s your aunt’s (or, maybe, your weird relationship with your aunt). Design expert Don Norman put it succinctly last summer, when he told Fast Company that “the problem is in trying to make email do everything when it’s not particularly good at anything.”

I disagree slightly. I think email is pretty good at something — communicating digitally with another person in an asynchronous, universal way. We can complain about it for another 20 years. We can use Slack and Facebook for Work. Google can add a layer on top to sort out the marketing emails. Mailbox can add useful tweaks like the now-ubiquitous snooze features. But the core works. Email isn’t bad. We’re bad, and our badness is reflected to us in its open, efficient, universal success. And you can’t blame Ray Tomlinson for that.